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Trading concrete barriers for glass ceilings and beyond

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A 1963 briefing paper on whether women should be permitted to rise up the ranks within Australia’s Trade portfolio shows not only were they not considered suitable for promotion, but they were undermined at every turn. How things have changed. Now Austrade is on an equality and inclusion mission.

In 2020, the number of female Australian Trade Commissioners and General Managers stationed overseas is expected to reach 31 out of 63, putting Austrade on track to achieve gender parity by the end of 2021.

But it was only 1963 when the Australian Government’s Trade Commission Service was in the throes of a gender debate as it considered appointing its very first woman trade commissioner, a bureaucrat named Freda Beryl Wilson, who was bound for the Los Angeles office.

Those internal deliberations, which were captured in a formal Minute Paper signed by a fellow named A. R. Tayson, give a staggering insight into the ways in which women were viewed with ridicule and withering derision within the Australian Public Service. And this—a mere 57 years in our past.

“A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years,” Mr Tayson said of the suggestion women could become successful trade emissaries.

“A man usually mellows,” he continued.

But there were apparently wider issues at bay. Women couldn’t get into the men’s clubs to do business, for a start.

And while they may be helpful promoting trade in women’s clothing and accessories, for instance, “such an appointment would not stay young and attractive forever and later on could well become a problem.”

Moreover, “A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman Trade Commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work.”

And of course, “It is extremely doubtful if a woman could, year after year, under a variety of conditions, stand the fairly severe strains and stresses, mentally and physically, which are part of the life of a Trade Commissioner.”

The good news is, these arguments didn’t prevent Beryl Wilson from getting that LA post—and by all accounts she acquitted herself honourably in the role.

The Minute paper to this day also provides a flashpoint of sorts for the current CEO of Austrade to push forward with some of the most progressive inclusion policies across Government.

What’s more, that CEO is a woman—Austrade’s first—Dr Stephanie Fahey.

Stephanie finds the Tayson memo singularly entertaining. But also “completely outrageous”.

“He was clearly a man of his times, but I would suggest he was a very conservative man of those times.”

It was not until 1966 that the Public Service Act was amended to allow women to keep their jobs after marriage, so women had not faced discrimination so much as been systematically blocked from fair representation.

Forget the glass ceiling—“for women at that time, these policies provided concrete barriers to their progression. We may laugh about it now but it wasn’t that long ago,” says Stephanie.

She was shown the infamous Tayson memo shortly after taking up the top Austrade job back in 2017—having come to the position after being EY’s lead partner for education in the Oceania region, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Global Engagement) at Monash University and Director of the University of Sydney’s Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific.

Dr Stephanie Fahey.

The paper, for those wondering, resurfaced into a much less hostile and sexist Australia in 2005 as part of a National Archives display of “quirky, amusing or nostalgic little gems” that researchers sometimes unearth within its collection.

Indeed, it is well known among the group of Australian female trade commissioners who gather in Parliament for the HerCanberra photo shoot prior to a black-tie Australian Export Award Dinner.

They have all read it.

Sally Deane, Austrade’s Senior Trade Commissioner in Jakarta and acting General Manager for ASEAN, says, “it amuses me more than anything. In many ways it shows how much things have changed—even if there is still a way to go.”

Sally cannot pinpoint a single instance in which her own career in Austrade has ever been impeded by her gender.

Kelly Matthews, meanwhile, who has just commenced a role as Trade Commissioner in Abu Dhabi and has been rotating on various postings since the age of 22, does recall being viewed in her work “through a gender lens”.

“I remember a time early in my career where foreign counterparts could not seriously understand how a single woman lived all by herself—who did my washing, who did my cooking?”

Tayson’s arguments to prevent women like Kelly ever holding an overseas post are “amusing, but it also makes me reflect on how much the APS has changed.”

Much of the most dramatic change within Austrade has occurred under Stephanie’s tenure—as she has worked concertedly to bring the gender divide into balance. She generously acknowledges the work initiated by her predecessors and recognises that a CEO can’t achieve these changes alone. You have to take the team on the journey.

Last year she spearheaded an ambitious Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which has set firm targets to increase the representation of women in Senior Executive, Trade Commissioner, and Senior Trade Commissioner roles.

Specifically, Austrade has set a goal of having 50 percent of SES positions filled by women by 2021. Other key aspects of the diversity strategy related to gender include a Women in Leadership talent development program which fosters existing female talent; a Panel Pledge ensuring diversity all Austrade events, meetings and forums globally; supporting flexible working and enhancing global policies to help parents share responsibility for childcare and exploring whether there is any bias in their recruitment systems.

Stephanie notes Austrade is already beginning to reap the benefits of the drive to greater female representation with last year’s Senior Trade Commissioner round producing five successful female applicants out of seven, and the most recent round of Trade Commissioners producing 13 women out of 25 roles.

Currently, 59 percent of Austrade staff are women.

The percentage of women in SES roles has increased substantially since 2015, from 34 percent to 44 percent by January 2020. The number of women in more junior management roles has also increased since 2015, up 5 percent to 54 percent.

Stephanie is loving the role, and while the travel demands are considerable, she is somehow fitting in activities that are singularly Canberran—riding her bike to work, paddling on the lake, hiking all the local hikes.

Having completed her PhD at the Australian National University, Stephanie admits being less than enthused by the prospect of relocating to Canberra—the university town she had known only in the 1980s.

But she has experienced a new Canberra and now intends to retire here. Not before she brings a new inclusive energy to the vital trade portfolio.

“At this point in my career, I feel this job gives me the authority to do the things I believe are important. And something that is hugely important to me is the diversity and inclusion strategy….When people of every gender, sexual orientation and race can stand up and really be proud of who they are and lead others in the organisation, that’s when you can feel satisfied, because as a CEO you have your hands on the lever and you can make these changes.”

Gender diversity in particular is a no-brainer for Stephanie, who sees women as having a natural affinity for trade negotiations.

“Trade has traditionally been dominated by men—partly because it was business oriented and also a dispersed network operating overseas which meant that the male culture stayed with Austrade longer than in any other parts of the public sector.”

But women have many of the requisite skills required for spruiking their country’s bests interests in the diplomatic mazes overseas.

“Women are very good communicators, they are empathetic, very good networkers and multitaskers. When you think of having to juggle the number of different exporters who are coming to the market from different industries, and to join the dots to ensure no opportunity is missed, I think women have the emotional intelligence to achieve this. I truly believe they are suited to trade.”

Certainly, when Anna Lin, New South Wales State Director of Austrade and a former TC in the Middle East and China, arrived in the international backwaters which was Mongolia 10 years ago, she honed an inner resourcefulness which stays with her to this day.

Surviving the minus 40-degree temps, she would strategically park herself at Millie’s Café—a “microcosm of the international development community, where I met someone from the International Monetary Fund, which eventually led to the Swiss agency funding an enterprise project with our organisation. My main lesson from Mongolia? Be resourceful and stay the course”.

Nicola Watkinson, the General Manager for the Americas, based in New York, has worked across Europe, South Asia and the Americas.

Taking a leaf out of former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s book, she now arranges to meet a group of business women on every trip she does around her region.

“One of my joys is working with the next wave of women taking on the world. Young and old, from diverse backgrounds and experiences, I see women increasingly taking their rightful place in global business…We are now tackling global challenges without leaving half our team on the bench,” she says.

“But it did remind me of the letter from A R Tayson when I discovered that a major business club in Lima is still ‘men only’ with women permitted under escort and until recently required to wear a skirt. We have agreed to refuse invitations held at this venue, and focus on those business people who are inclusive.”

Stephanie cannot help but smile when she speaks of the recent export awards handed out at Parliament and how they would have been viewed by A.R. Tayson and his ilk.

Winner of the 2019 Sustainability Award was Modibodi—a Sydney-based company that is producing pioneering period undies made from tech-savvy fabrics like bamboo, merino wool and microfibre.

The company has 150,000 customers worldwide, has sold over one million garments and plans to launch a men’s underwear range. Founder Kristy Chong estimates Modibodi products will stop two billion disposables being used over the next 50 years, resulting in almost 170 tonnes less waste.

It is the ingenuity and grit of companies such as Modibodi that Stephanie believes is propelling Australia’s economic advancement relative to other countries.

“We forget we are a tiny island, really off in the Pacific…Other economies—countries in Latin America such as Chile, Brazil—they look at us and compare economies and they say ‘how did you do that? What is it that you do differently?’”

Modibodi is only one of many clever companies creating new markets here and overseas with the export awards recognising dozens more.

But Stephanie pauses a moment to consider how one Mr A.R. Tayson would feel about a menstruation product being held up in the trade spotlight as a symbol of Australian manufacturing savvy.

“Well one can only imagine what Mr Tayson would have thought. He would have wanted to crawl under the table, I believe. He would have been very afraid. It is an indication of just how much has changed since his time.”


This article originally appeared in Magazine: Time (AW2020), available to read free online.

Read it here.

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